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Fascinating Fake

Adam Bernstein

The New York Times wrote an obituary recently for Joe O'Donnell, who professed to have been an official White House photographer for five administrations and taken defining images of those eras (Little John-John saluting his father's coffin in 1963, et al.).

When a series of retired news photographers started questioning O'Donnell's veracity, an abbreviated correction followed and a promise to follow-up at length. And then, yesterday, the paper's public editor added his observations about how the mistake occurred.

This is fascinating stuff for obit fans, namely because it reminds us how fragile the job can be.

After the NYT ran its obit, we on the obit desk were all taken aback by the seeming scoop. After all, he spent much of his career -- as it now turns out, for the U.S. Information Agency -- in Washington. Yet The Washington Post passed up its own staff-written obituary on O'Donnell. Here's why:

I found nothing on him when I searched the archive of the NYT and Wash Post. This was very odd, considering the position he claimed to have held at the White House. Typically, news and even offical WH photographers of that era were members of a local photog. association and many have won prizes for "best feature photo of Vice President Nixon's stubble" or some such thing. Anyway, nothing on O'Donnell. And then I called O'Donnell's wife, in Nashville. She was his fourth wife and had very little information about the hows and whys of his life.

So I recommended we use the wire story, as we seemingly could not add anything of historic or anecdotal value to the basic outline of his life. This was a good call, as it turned out. Or at least the better call. We are still waiting for the AP to correct its account; the wire service's Nashville bureau chief is supposed to get back to us presently about what it plans to run. We'll then make a decision how to proceed.

The NYT investigation was intriguing, a portrait of a man whose alleged dementia may have been responsible for his fakery. And yet, it was an uneasy reminder of the human desire to be remembered at any cost, to leave some form of public legacy. After all, people seem to vanish into obscurity faster, now that news cycles are quicker.

By Adam Bernstein  |  September 17, 2007; 10:34 AM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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